Sexism: scaring the good ones away

A couple weeks ago, Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick, duh) wrote a piece for Slate magazine recounting the enormous brouhaha that erupted after her comments on how to treat women at skeptical gatherings. Most of the readers here will probably be familiar with what happened, so I’m going to skip to the end of the article, when she describes how this sudden eruption of misogyny in the skeptical community has affected other women.

Meanwhile, other skeptical women are being bullied out of the spotlight and even out of their homes. My fellow writer on Skepchick, Amy Davis Roth, moved after her home address was posted on a forum dedicated to hating feminist skeptics. In September, blogger Greta Christina wrote that “when I open my mouth to talk about anything more controversial than Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster recipes or Six More Atheists Who Are Totally Awesome, I can expect a barrage of hatred, abuse, humiliation, death threats, rape threats, and more.” And Jen McCreight stopped blogging and accepting speaking engagements altogether. “I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few),” she wrote. “I just can’t take it anymore.”

This next sentence may be obvious to some…but guess what? The sexist hostility, the tolerance of violent harrassment, and the outright hatred is scaring people away from our community. It’s silencing people. And it’s alienating young people that could be our biggest and most active contributors. These issues put the skeptical community in danger of destroying the momentum we currently have. I’m glad Rebecca has made these issues known to a wider community and that we have feminist allies on our side as a result. But there is much more work to be done.

I have spoken in person and conversed by email, comment thread, or private message with many self-identified skeptics and interested people who want to know more about skepticism. Every so often, I am amazed by how many more people have heard about skepticism since I first learned about it five years ago. It gives me hope that skeptical voices will become more prominent in the media, in politics, and in normal everyday conversation. But when many of these folks hear about the types of threats and abuse that skeptical women have tolerated for the movement, they just want to run. Far, far away. And they never get to hear about the wonderful things that skepticism has to offer.

A movement is not just about ideas. Yes, we all agree that vaccinating against disease is good for public health. Yes, we agree that false balance in the media is a problem, that evolution belongs in science class, and that homeopathic “remedies” don’t truly belong in pharmacies. But there is much more to the skeptical movement. A movement has goals. In our case, one fundamental goal is to spread skeptical principles and ideas far and wide so that more people can think skeptically, promote the cause, and make the world a more rational place. (Right? Sometimes I feel like these goals are totally overlooked!)

And then here’s the obvious conclusion: if you’re scaring people away–both men and women–your movement is not going to be very popular or widespread. And, of course, the more women leave the movement, the worse off you’ll be. There are fewer role models. There are fewer voices contributing ideas, time, effort, and resources.

Now here’s the (maybe) new part of this conversation: you’re scaring off the good young people. I’ve had the privilege of meeting many young people that care passionately about what happens to our world and our society. They’re, at this moment, fighting for stricter emissions laws to combat global warming, working at non-profit organizations, writing about bad policies and advising people on new ones, and becoming doctors, lawyers, and scientists. I know most of them would agree that outright threats of murder and rape are completely unacceptable, and that they could never work for people who tolerated this.

I care very deeply about making the scientific and skeptical perspective known to a wider audience. I think it has implications for education, government policy, public health, and even conversations about ethics. But even I am questioning the skeptical movement these days: is it really worth staying in such a hostile environment? If I feel anxious about getting up on stage and make my voice heard, isn’t my participation basically moot? If I have to think twice about writing a blog post like this (there be dragons–and here be trolls), are skeptics ever going to succeed?

Yes–sexist behavior is damaging to its targets. But it’s also damaging to the community. If skeptics want to quibble about old pictures of the Loch Ness monster, it doesn’t really bother me. No harm done, even if we’re not focusing on issues that I care about more. But if skeptics want to vehemently hate women who are making their minds and voices heard–honestly? It makes me think about getting outta here.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. November 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm —

    Once again, what started out as a comment became a blog post:


    But to be more accurate, I had a conversation at lunch yesterday with a couple of your colleagues at Skpechick/Teen Skepchick as well as PZ Myers, and this whole thing (naturally) came up, and have been thinking thoughts much like what you wrote here since then, and planned to write something. It made sense to use your post as an entree to that discussion.

  2. November 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm —

    Simply for hosting Rebecca as a speaker at my annual conference and posting her talk on my youtube channel, I now have people creating videos about me. I have been told, outright, that I am being watched. It’s ridiculous. I have been dealing with a stalker for almost 2 years that boasts about hating feminists. His whole life revolves around trying to make sure everyone hates me. Sheesh, If he put half as much effort into his own, he might have a decent one.

  3. November 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm —

    But even I am questioning the skeptical movement these days: is it really worth staying in such a hostile environment? If I feel anxious about getting up on stage and make my voice heard, isn’t my participation basically moot? If I have to think twice about writing a blog post like this (there be dragons–and here be trolls), are skeptics ever going to succeed?

    This is why I keep encouraging people not to think of the current conflict as “infighting”. Instead just accept that the schism is already complete and irreversible. And it’s a good thing, because then the attacks are not really coming from within “our own” movement, and all the horrible misogynists out there are simply part of the normal “background noise” along with the alties who claim we are all shills for big pharma, and the fundies who say we are all going to Hell. Those of us who care about not alienating women and young people are already on your side, and the rest are not worth having on board anyway.

  4. November 5, 2012 at 6:11 pm —

    Came to this post from Greg’s above, don’t be scared off one thing you can be sure of is that they are in a minority. Those that want diversity in the movement are far more numerous than those who want some sort of Darwinian survival of the thick-skinned.

  5. November 8, 2012 at 1:07 pm —

    Please stay.

    Skeptics ARE going to have much success. The question is what kind. If we only succeed along fronts defined by those giving you the grief because we lose your unique contributions, I will be sad and disappointed.

    I have no magic to shield you from the grief-mongers. I wish I did. We can make our case for it to stop, and call it out when we can. Sometimes it will even work. In the cases when it doesn’t we can only support you, and hope it’s enough.

  6. November 12, 2012 at 11:35 am —

    I just ran into this in real life. I went to an atheist/skeptic meetup group a week ago. An older gentlemen said with a wink and a nod that Atheism+ was a cult. I asked him what he meant, and it devolved into some of the least skeptical thinking I’ve ever seen. He likened Atheism+ to Jonestown and Waco texas. He said all these skepchicks and A+ people were being led by PZ Meyers, and we were all going to implode in a violent suicide/confrontation.

    It polarized the entire meet up. Old white neck beard guys on one side, and all of us younger folks on the other. So this schism is really dividing any movement you want to ascribe to atheists and skeptics to be in. Seeing this guy, replay every MRA/vitriol Atheist troll argument in real life was shocking. I tried to keep it polite, but he was too busy taking things so far, it made people uncomfortable.

    I was just gobbsmacked, as were some of the folks that ended up in my corner with me. We were all disturbed by his behavior. There was actually talk of starting a different meetup under the A+ heading. So this schism is real life, and not small.

    • November 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm —

      Bummer. Does he not now that many of the A+ people are old white guys with neckbeards????

      I’ve not heard the Jonestown/Waco comparison before, but then again, most of the time I just stay home sipping my Kool Aid.

      Anyway, sorry that happened to you. Bummer.

      • November 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm —

        It was definitely one of the more surreal experiences I have had in the skeptic community. Especially since I have had such good experiences before this.

  7. November 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm —

    I’ve been deliberately ignoring this conflict over the last few months—I suppose because my life is full enough of conflict and stress from hostile sources that it pains me to read about conflict within the skeptical movement. Skepticism has been a great source of encouragement and comfort over the last few years, so it’s felt easier to look the other way lately.

    But I happened upon your blog post this morning, and your well-expressed thoughts compel me to weigh in to voice my support for you, Rebecca, Amy, Greta, Jen, and all the women who’ve experienced insults, threats, and harassment.

    I hope that many—most—men in the movement want it to be inclusive of and welcoming to skeptics of any age, race, sex, gender, political inclination, etc. I’m piping in today to thank you for the blog post, to offer my support, and to encourage others among the silent majority of skeptics-of-good-will to do the same.

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